Leading Article: Straining political credibility

Click to follow
ACCORDING to the Sun, in the second week of the election, when things were apparently going badly for the Conservatives, 'a prominent member of the Cabinet' phoned the paper in an attempt to smear Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader. The caller allegedly offered the names and addresses of three women who had, so he claimed, been having affairs with the Liberal Democrat leader. The Sun said that it checked the stories and found them to be untrue. The allegation of dirty tricks and double standards, repeated on Radio 4's The World Tonight by the editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, is very specific - although he did not name the offending minister.

The report is more credible because it reinforces suspicions widely held during the general election campaign that the Conservatives intended to fight dirty if necessary. On 4 April, for example, Anthony Bevins, our political editor, reported that two Conservative sources had earlier told him that allegations about the private life of a senior opponent of the Government could be expected late in the campaign if the two main parties were still running neck and neck.

Given the size of the Cabinet, there can be only a handful of its then members to whom the term 'prominent' might reasonably be applied. Unless Mr MacKenzie is prepared to identify his paper's source, the reputations of four or five leading Conservative politicians will remain tarnished. As for Mr MacKenzie, if the matter is left unresolved, he will stand open to the accusation that he is prepared to wound but afraid to strike. He should make it clear which senior Conservative he believes to have been involved in a dirty tricks campaign. It would then be for the person named to sue or to resign from the Cabinet - assuming he is still a member.

Lord Tebbit, who was prominent in the Conservative election campaign but not a member of the Cabinet, yesterday called for a truce between journalists and politicians. He felt it was likely that a minister and the editor of the Sun had discussed rumours circulating at the time. Each had assumed the other was confirming those rumours. This interpretation, though very convenient for the Government, is incompatible with the detailed nature of the allegations already made by the paper. Conservative Central Office, which is now investigating the story, will have to produce something far more convincing.

Coming from a usually staunchly pro-Conservative paper, at a time when the Prime Minister is angered by recent press intrusions into the privacy of Conservative politicians and is considering the introduction of legislation to ban such prying, the Sun's story is particularly damaging. If true, it suggests that Mr Major is either hypocritical or woefully ill-informed about dirty deeds undertaken on his behalf by his lieutenants. (The Prime Minister went out of his way to offer public support to Mr Ashdown when details of his affair with his secretary leaked out, and has stood by David Mellor, the Secretary of State for National Heritage in a similar situation this week.)

Until this issue is resolved it matters little whether or not Mr Mellor retains ministerial responsibility for the media. Mr Major and his entire Cabinet will lack the moral credibility to argue the case for legislation protecting the privacy of public figures.